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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 4 - Hat Trick or Treat

The word "hat," like the article of clothing, can come up in the strangest of places. Some of the idioms using that word for a piece of head attire are as popular today as they were when they first came into the minds of their creators. "At the drop of a hat," "keep it under your hat," and even the popular sports term "hat trick" date back to our ancestors' time. Check some of these out here.


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Last month we looked at the clothing of our ancestors, some of which we still wear today, that "started at the bottom" - those items of attire that adorned the feet and lower parts of the legs. This month (and next) we will examine the terminology related to the other extreme: headgear. With hats and caps and hoods and scarves, our ancestors rarely ventured out without some sort of head covering. Sometimes this was for religious reasons, sometimes for protection against the elements, and sometimes for style. Whatever the purpose of the headgear, a number of phrases have been spawned by the items of attire; these will be the focus here.

We shall begin with the phrases involving the word "hat." There are so many, and I am sure some have been omitted (not purposely); I think you will gain a new respect for the garment worn on top of the head after reading how it has given us many metaphors. Let us begin with the "old hat"; no one wants to hear that researching family history is "old hat," but that's probably what it was and is to some of our relatives. The phrase, fairly recent when compared to all hat-wearing civilization, is supposedly related to a garment that has been worn so much that it is rather tattered and snug-fitting. I remember my grandfather had such a hat - if he showed up without it, he appeared undressed. While the information - stories; history that has been so oft-repeated - may well be considered "old hat" (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 127), like my grandfather's old fedora, it is still a cherished part of the family.

Did your ancestor "talk through his hat"? This phrase, meaning that the person's facts are not exactly accurate, originated in about 1850 in England. Allegedly, the practice began in church when, during prayer, the parishioners were expected to kneel. One gentleman, in an effort to keep his pants from getting soiled (no doubt this was before kneeling rails), elected, instead, to stand and speak his prayer with his hat held over his face. Others who saw this were of two schools: those who thought it a great way to avoid getting into an uncomfortable kneeling position and those who thought the pretend reverence was a mockery. Those in the latter category ridiculed the ones who were mumbling "through their hats" and labeled them irreverent. It did not take long for the phrase "talking through your hat" to make it out of the church and into the streets to describe any communication that was deemed false or insincere (Mordock & Korach, pp. 72-73). The phrase popped up on this side of the pond, in the context of speaking falsehoods or sharing unproven information, in 1888 in New York's The World; an article about street car drivers and conductors included the idiom with no further explanation, implying that it was already in common usage by that time (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 196).

I remember watching an old situation comedy where someone was hypnotized to do something (e.g., crow like a rooster or laugh uncontrollably) "at the drop of a hat" (literally). Every time someone dropped a hat, the "victim" would then crow, or laugh, or whatever that action was. I don't think so many people have ever dropped hats in a thirty-minute time period than on that episode. Well, dropping a hat is hardly a problem in today's society (look at how many people wear - or, rather, don't wear - hats these days . . . and those who do usually have them so positioned that the likelihood of them dropping is significantly less than in days when our ancestors would not venture out of the house without some sort of head covering). In the Old West, it was the dropping of a hat that signaled a duel was commencing. While the more civilized societies (if one calls dueling a civilized activity) used the dropping of a handkerchief as the prescribed method of signaling "try to blow each other's brains out," the western equivalent found hats more readily available (and possibly more visible). The activity, which, supposedly, both parties were anxious to begin, gave "at the drop of a hat" the meaning of impatience to commence that event. The phrase allegedly dates to the late 1800s (Garrison, p. 213).

When we wish to tell someone a secret, and be assured that the receiver knows to keep it confidential, the phrase "keep this under your hat" usually accomplishes the task. There is no mystery to the meaning ("keep it in your head" - i.e., that which is covered by said hat), but it's origin is surprisingly recent. While Great-Grandma may have given the warning to your grandfather, it is not likely that she received a similar one from her parents (estimated age of the phrase: just over 100 years) (Hendrickson, p. 381).

The image of a person munching on a fedora, having lost a bet, and agreeing to "eat his hat" if he turned out to be wrong, is one that causes most of us to chuckle. However, the original "hat" of this unusual bet was really spelled hatte and had nothing to do with headgear. It was a European recipe that called for "eggs, veal, dates, saffron, salt," and a few other odds and ends that don't sound much like something we would wish to eat in a single dish. Most cooks were unable to master the finer points of mixing and cooking this creation and only the boldest of the bold (or hungriest of the hungry) would dare to eat the results. So when one says that he will "eat a hatte," his offer is not quite as extreme as a plan to cook and consume a sombrero, but might require just as strong a stomach (Garrison, p. 118). However, it seems that Charles Dickens may have been unaware of this culinary definition when, in 1837, he stated "'If I knew as little of life as that, I'd eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole'" (Pickwick Papers). I know, there is also a dish called a "buckle," but I don't think that's where Dickens was heading with that (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp. 184-185).

And should one attempt to eat a literal hat, the smaller the better, would be my thought. The cowboy fully dressed in his ten-gallon hat should be very cautious before volunteering to consume that chapeau. On the plains, the cowboy hat provided the wearer with a shield from the sun as well as protection from the rain. Should he need to carry some water back to the campsite, the hat could also be thusly employed; but would it really carry ten gallons? More importantly, could even the heartiest cowboy stand tall in such a large headpiece? Many of the terms used by those western pioneers come from Spanish origins and such is the case here. In Spanish, the sombrero galoneado was a hat - adorned with a braid (galón) - that had a wide brim (the Spanish word for "braid" also means "gallon," so the misinterpretation is not so surprising). Trying to make sense of this term, we soon find the "gallon hat" increasing to a size that may more accurately define the ego of the wearer - after all, in the old western films some of those hats did look pretty darn big (Quinion, pp. 239-240). No doubt, the thirsty range rider would have really appreciated a ten-gallon capacity of his hat, when bringing up water from the river to the chuck wagon.

Hat brims have many uses (as noted in the discussion of the ten-gallon hat), but when the sides of the hat are drawn up and formed so that the headpiece has a triangular shape, it seems that one of the most valuable aspects of the garment has been rendered useless. Likely, Colonial soldiers thought this very thing when they saw their commanding officers wearing the odd three-cornered items. "Knocking someone into a cocked hat," then, would mean to so abuse him that he would no longer have any worth (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 104). Another theory, continuing with the concept that the triangular hat of the military officers was something of an adornment rather than a useful part of one's battle uniform, is that the hat got its unusual shape from constantly being thrust under the commander's arm (being made of felt, its form was easily influenced by such abuse, just as one who is "knocked into a cocked hat" experiences abuse - physical or verbal) (Mordock & Korach, p. 44). Some believe that the phrase originated with a bowling game, ca. 1858, which uses pins arranged in a triangle, but that post-dates the first written find of the term in 1833 (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 104). Another take on this origin is that it isn't a particular variant on bowling but, rather, a spare in a standard game where the triangle positioning of the remaining pins makes it almost impossible for the bowler to knock all three down. His situation is "knocked into a cocked hat" (Mordock & Korach, p. 44).

Continuing with sports references, along with the number "three," another "hat" phrase that comes to mind is "hat trick." It refers to anything done in threes in the subject game. Football, hockey, rugby, cricket, bowling, darts, Scrabble, marbles, and even poker have their respective "hat trick" references. It sounds as if its origin should deal with the three corners of the hat, mentioned in the previous paragraph, but, instead, it is based on traditional British cricket players who received a new hat when they scored three balls in a row. A second opinion is that, when he scored three consecutive wins, the player would receive prize money acquired from passing the hat to the spectators (Hendrickson, p. 317).

Well, we have looked at the hat brim and, before that, the hat capacity, examining phrases about the braid around a cowboy hat, but how normal was that braid, or hatband? The once popular phrase "as queer as Dick's hatband" (though likely not as acceptable these days due to lack of political correctness) is sometimes mistakenly believed to refer to Oliver Cromwell's son, Richard, during his eight-month period as Lord Protector in 1658. However, since this event took place over a century before the phrase first appeared in print, that genesis is very unlikely (Quinion, pp. 98-99). Another suggestion, staying with the royalty aspect, is that it refers to King Richard III and his plot to keep his nephews from their rightful claim to the throne. In this case, the idea of Dick's hatband being "tight" is a reference to the royal crown being too dangerous for Richard III to wear, as he was killed in battle in 1485(Garrison, p. 236). This explanation has the same problem as the one about Cromwell: its actuality is too far removed from its first recorded use. While it originated in England, it soon crossed the pond and can be found in Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms in 1848. Prior to that, the various qualifiers for the hatband have included, besides "tight" and "queer": "fine," "false," "contrary," and "twisted," among others. So who is Dick and why does his hatband warrant such scrutiny? Some believe that "Dick" had originally been "Nick," a euphemism for the devil. So, did the devil wear a hat? According to etymologists over the ages, this peculiar saying has no clear origin and the speculation about a reference to the devil is simply that (Quinion, pp. 98-99). So the search continues - a search which is as elusive as Dick's hatband.

Continuing with the concept of hats, hatbands, and hat-wearers as having some sort of peculiarity, we move finally to the phrase "mad as a hatter." Most of us immediately connect that to literature: Alice in Wonderland seems to be an almost timeless tale, coming back for reincarnations with almost every new generation. The character of the Mad Hatter was so named because of the phrase "mad as a hatter" (not the other way around); this reality was not an uncommon phenomenon of pre-1840s hat makers. Until the felt-making machine caused the old form of making hats obsolete, the creation of felt (made of compressed animal hair or wool) involved the use of mercuric nitrate. With prolonged exposure to this chemical, the felt-maker (the "hatter") would soon develop twitches, an uneven walk, slurred speech, and even confusion - interpreted as insanity. From that horrible condition, then, many long-term hatters were considered "mad," and with good reason (Garrison, p. 133).

So, is your genealogy really old hat? My guess is that, for most of us, we cherish our ancestors and their stories, sometimes acting as mad as a hatter when we start talking about it. And we rarely keep those stories under our hats; instead, we talk about them at the drop of a hat. We are truthful about our forebears' successes as well as their failures, not talking through our hats. And we swear to the truth of our findings and will eat our hats if we are proved wrong. Sometimes our living relatives may want to knock us into a cocked hat for our constant prattling, declaring that we are as peculiar as Dick's hatband when it comes to our heritage. Will we settle for pulling a hat trick - telling only three stories? Hardly! We share as many as possible . . . enough to fill a ten gallon hat!


Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Quinion, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006.

Wikipedia. "Hat Trick." 21 September 2010. Accessed from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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